Sunday, September 02, 2007

Beach-blanket Natural Philosophy

At a yard sale recently, I bought an old copy of Hubbard's Battlefield Earth for twenty cents. "Beach" reading, perfect for summer. The characters are superficial, the plot movement often contrived, and some of the language confusing, but Hubbard does a good job building that momentum that gets you to turn to the next chapter (or part).

One of the main "science" premises of this science fiction novel is the mysterious workings of the antagonists' teleportation system:

Prior to this [discovery], it was thought that teleportation consisted of converting energy and matter to space and then reconverting it in another place so it would assume its natural form. But this had never been proven. En [the discoverer] had apparently found that space could exist entirely independently of time, energy, or mass and that all these things were actually separate items. Only when combined did they make up a universe.

Space was dependent only upon three coordinates. When one dictated [!] a set of space coordinates one shifted space itself. Any energy or mass contained in that space thereupon shifted with that space shift.

In the matter of a motor such as this freighter had, it was just an enclosed housing in which space coordinates could be changed. As the coordinates changed, the housing was forced to go along, and this gave the motor power.... A series of coordinates were progressively fed to the main motor and it self went forward or backward as the housed space occupied each set of coordinates in turn.

Teleportation over vast distances worked the same way. Matter and energy were pinned to the space, and when it was exchanged with another space, they simply changed too. Thus matter and energy would seem to disappear in one place and appear in another. They didn't actually change. Only the space did.

There are so many things wrong with this description that it is hard to know where to begin. Now of course, no one takes the "science" mumbo-jumbo in science fiction novels seriously (I mean most of these things technically don't even qualify as novels1), but for entertainment purposes, let's look at it more closely.

In the first place, this idea of absolute space (apart from an absolute time) was conjured up by Newton to facilitate his mechanics, which was based on Descartes's analytic geometry. It's took us centuries to get over this naive starting point, but as we all know, the consequences of Einstein's notions of space and time continua forming a unified space-time continuum were experimentally confirmed by the time Hubbard wrote his novel in 1982. In his special theory of relativity, Einstein showed how the dilation of time intervals and the correlative contraction of spatial dimensions at speeds approaching the speed of light explain many phenomena, most notably the constancy of the speed of light for all observers, however they are moving. So not only are space and time interdependent, but also there can be no absolute coordinate system---what would define the origin?

Further, in his general theory of relativity, Einstein showed that the geometrical structure of this spacetime depends on nearby masses. So space exists relative to mass-energy as well as time.

But the dubiousness of the idea goes deeper than physics. Coincidentally, I've also been reading A.W. Moore's The Infinite. Of course one of the puzzles of infinity is whether a magnitude or continuous quantity can be composed of discrete, infinitesimal points. Cantor's transfinite mathematics notwithstanding2, it is pretty clear that elements with length zero can never add up to a finite length. Philosophically speaking, using a teleporter to move through a continuum requires more sophistication (infinitely more!) than teleporting across the universe. That means that the teleportation motor that Hubbard describes cannot move continuously, but has to move itself through discrete points. Perhaps the resulting vibration is the reason the engines make such noise when "dictating" themselves through space. Of course, if space exists independent of the rest of the universe, then one has to wonder what sort of forces would allow one to shift it.

Hubbard's novel is interesting also for how it speaks about his personal philosophy, a philosophy that undoubtedly colors the doctrine of the Church of Scientology, which he founded. It shows a naive trust in human nature so characteristic of the 20th century. But in addition, Hubbard also displays a distrust of government and a simple faith in the abilities. More interestingly, Hubbard has at least a rudimentary respect for nature: his villains, a race of aliens called the Psychlos, have been altered at birth to suit arbitrary societal demands (working hard, preserving technological secrets) that also make them sadists.

Wikipedia says that Punch (April 4, 1984) sarcastically commended Hubbard's "excellent understanding of evil impulses, particularly deviousness, which helps with the plot, and [he] is well-enough aware of his weaknesses not to dwell upon frailties like love, generosity, compassion." I might add that Hubbard's detachment from humanity is reflected in his naive, purely quantitative conception of greatness. Beyond the 1000-page length of the book, the Psychlos are much bigger than humans (10-ft tall and weighing 1000 lbs each) and the greatness of their empire is reflected the vastness of the numbers that define it. As Hubbard writes,


The homeplanet of two hundred thousand worlds.

The center of an empire that had ruled and ruined sixteen universes over the period of three hundred and two thousand years.3

Wanna spice up your novel with more awe-inspiring bad-guys? Just add zeros!


1. A novel in the usual understanding centers around the development of a character. The cover of my copy of the present work is a painting in bold primary colors of a blond, bearded bare-chested man (physique of a body builder) firing two futuristic guns, in the background angular spacecraft zooming around (see the book homepage: In this case it seems you can judge a book by its cover. Tragic little of science fiction explores characters with any depth, though later writers have sought to overcome this shortcoming by introducing sex scenes, as if meaningless couplings add human depth! At least Hubbard refrains from the latter.

2. Cantor showed that there are (infinitely) more irrational numbers between any two rationals than there are rationals on the real number line. But his failure to show that the continuum is the next infinity bigger than the rationals leaves an indefiniteness to the place of the continuum in Cantor's hierarchy of transfinite numbers. More on this later.

3. P. 899. Somehow their tremendous evil does nothing to destablize their society.

4. Looks like Battlefield Earth is Presidential candidate Mitt Romney's favorite novel! Just the thing to read while you're having your hair blow-dried.

L. Ron Hubbard, Battlefield Earth: A Saga [!] of the Year 3000 (Los Angeles: Bridge Publications, 1984), 187-8.

A.W. Moore, The Infinite (Routledge, 1989).


Holopupenko said...

     Here’s my problem with Hubbard’s misunderstanding of what space “is,” and his near-equivocation of space and place.

     “Place” and “position” and “location” are three terms used interchangeably (& somewhat sloppily) to indicate one of Aristotle’s minor accidents of real being (where quantity, quality, and relation are considered major accidents). Space, on the other hand, is not a “thing”—just as a shadow is not a “thing.” If space was something, there would be something “there” even if there were nothing “there.” (Note I’m not using “space” as another word for cosmos,
“I need space,” “space for worship” (ugh!), etc.) Space is the privation of mathematical quantity, and therefore is a being of reason: it helps us wrap our weak human (i.e., non-angelic) minds around a concept of nothingness based on the absence of res extensa. And, let’s not forget, the Aristotelian category of quantity (discrete or continuous) is the first accident of real being, and without it there could be no other accidents.

     So, for Hubbard to say “…teleportation consisted of converting energy and matter to space and then reconverting it in another place…” is utter nonsense. The last (4th) paragraph is such a mish-mash: you’re correct—it’s difficult to decide where to begin.

     Unfortunately, even among normally cogent physicists this happens quite often: one often hears the assertion “an atom is composed of mostly empty space.” Really? Isn’t that a little like saying the dark side of the moon is composed of mostly shadows? And this doesn’t even address the obvious blunder of forgetting that the alleged void between electrons and the nucleons is “filled” with the four forces of nature: the universe doesn’t just stop where the nucleons end and pick back up again when one approaches the electron orbitals. Do they mean to imply that the forces of nature really “nothing”?

     “Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?!” (C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe)

Lawrence Gage said...


You're certainly right about the need to understand Aristotle's idea of place. It clears up so many confusions! Unfortunately no one seems to be aware of how salient it is (for its relativity) because all moderns know of his idea of place is his concept of natural place, in which he absolutized place.

I would like to amend what you say on two points. First, the statements in the first paragraph that you object to are not actually Hubbard's views ("it was thought..."). The real problem with the statement is that it implies that purely hypothetical ideas, like teleportation, are somehow on par with real science.

Second, there are legitimate uses of "space." Aristotle does in fact use the word chora or space in the Physics. Of course the way that Hubbard and modern physicists use "space" is in the erroneous mode you describe.


Holopupenko said...

You are right - thanks for the correction.

poor physicist said...

Just a curious question from one as ignorant as I to you who are wiser: Suppose for the moment that the post-big bang universe is a gravitationally closed universe (i.e. that the movement apart initiated at the big bang will eventually reverse, and all the matter will return.) Would Aristotle's notion of absolute place then be valid, just by transferring the "natural place" of heavy bodies to the center of the universe rather than the center of the earth? Indeed, would it become possible to say that all bodies (gravitationally drawn to all other bodies individually), are naturally drawn to the center by averaging all those grav forces into one final all-encompassing vector? Would natural place acquire new life?

Lawrence Gage said...

Dear Poor Physicist,

You needn't be so humble; these are good, intelligent questions, and to ask them shows that you are thinking, but just haven't been exposed to the material that would answer them.

First, since the data now seem to say rather convincingly that the universe is not closed (but is accelerating in its expansion), that's a pretty big hypothetical!

Another thing helpful to know is that in modern cosmology, every place has an equal claim to being the center of the universe--as with the surface of a sphere, no point is its center. The universe is analogous to the sphere's 2-d surface, and as the sphere expands, every point on the surface sees every other point expand away from it, giving it the idea that it is the center.

Despite the popular misconception Aristotle's notion of place is actually relative. He only absolutized it when he applied it to the cosmos he saw. For example, Aristotle wouldn't say that you're travelling x thousands of miles per second around the Sun, except only insofar as you are part of the Earth. Sitting at your computer in your office you are stationary. That's the conceptual nuance that modern science lacks. (See Aquinas's commentary on Book IV of the Physics.) Anyway, the moral of the story is that you really don't need to save Aristotle's cosmos to save his notion of place.

I hope my comments are helpful.
A colleague of mine has a paper coming out in the next (January) issue of The Thomist that purports to rescue natural motion (the "natural place" terminology is a medieval coinage). I'm hoping to blog on it once it is out.


poor physicist said...

Thanks, LG, I appreciate the corrections. I had heard that the most recent idea is for an acceleratingly expanding one universe, but I have never gone through the argument for that and have assumed its status is more along the lines of the most recent neat hypothesis rather than settled theory. For one thing, the illustration used (of the surface of a sphere) seems to ignore the interior of the sphere as having a bearing on the issue. (I.e. do the galaxies on the other side of the sphere have a pull on those on this side directly through the sphere, or what?) Secondly, it is not clear to me whether the "accelerating" is based on the relative motion of galaxies near to each other on the surface, or the rate of increase of the size (say, radius) of the sphere itself. Third, I don't recall reading a single thread of argument proposing that they have actually located a large empty space on the other side of which are many more galaxies.

I studied the Physics thoroughly in college, but it has been a few years now. A friend and I a while back explored ways in which one could unify Aristotle's concept of natural motion and projectile motion (or orbital motion of a moon) under the field theory of gravity. We came up with a tentative proposal which I cannot recall the details of right now, but the general gist of it was to use the bodies themselves to constitute the meaning, identity, and operation of the "space" through which the bodies act upon one another. The net result is that there is no such thing as "space" independent of the sum total of the bodies which act "through" that space. This of course fits with relativity theory in a vague way - but I am hampered in getting any further by my layman's understanding of relativity (well, I did study Einstein's book on it, but only did the special relativity part).

poor physicist

Lawrence Gage said...

Dear Poor Physicist,

No, there's very little theory involved in the finding that the universe's expansion is accelerating. The observation is simply the correlation of distance and red-shift: galaxies father away (and further in the past) are moving more slowly than they would if the expansion were constant in time. It's since been corroborated by other independent observations. The correct explanation of the observations is completely up for grabs at this point--that's the theory part.

The observation has little to do with the sphere metaphor I was attempting to use to illustrate cosmic expansion in general. In that metaphor, there is nothing in the middle or the outside of the sphere, so no forces can be transmitted through it. The 2-d spherical surface represents all three dimensions of space; neither the universe or the sphere is embedded in a higher dimensional space. A good book on modern cosmology would likely explain it better than I can here.

I can't say I understand how you were intending to unify projectile with natural motion, but it sounds interesting and more or less philosophically sane. Of course a poor understanding of Einstein's relativity shouldn't hamper an attempt to explain Newtonian physical concepts like inertia.

The best book I've read on special relativity is Mook and Vargish's Inside Relativity.


poor physicist said...

I have heard the sphere metaphor for 35 years now, but have never been able to pin it down in terms I grasp. If the interior of the sphere is not 3-D space (in the sense of carrying light or gravity) then in what way does it help explain the phenomena? I thought that the sphere enables us to posit a rationale for ALL of the further galaxies moving away from us, and that this presumes that the light we receive travels on secants through the sphere, not along the surface. If both the light and the gravity "travel" along the outside, and the interior is not space as such, then the sphere hardly adds anything to the picture. Well, maybe I need to study better cosmology books. I have Brian Greene's Elegant Universe, but have not really tackled it yet.